Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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A Christian’s Love

A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 preached on February 19th, 2017

Sermon audio

For the last several weeks, we’ve been feeling our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this world-defying, upside-down, backward-seeming collection of Divine wisdom that, on the surface, sounds a whole lot like foolishness. But that’s exactly why we’re spending so much time in it: because it is only with careful and deep attention to each word of it—every Divine notion in it—that our hearts can be reshaped into this new likeness, that our very lives, and every aspect of them, stand a chance of being recast into God-shaped form.

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Nowhere in the entire Sermon on the Mount is the challenge greater than in this passage.

If we think Jesus asked too much of us last week when he recast the meanings of murder, divorce, adultery, and oath-making, then what He has to say here should seem to us nothing less than superhuman.

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Pastor Jason Byassee pressed the voicemail button on his phone as he was stumbling into his kitchen with armfuls of groceries after a long day at work. His daughter, Erin, then 10-years old, had left a message:

Dad, I’m the liturgist at church Sunday, and I have the passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? …Do the other gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other gospels? Could you let me know, because… well, no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.

Erin’s objection to this passage is quite like our own, isn’t it? We go through all sorts of efforts to finagle our way out of what we know it says. The mental gymnastics we do to excuse ourselves from practicing the way of love described in these words would earn all of us a gold medal at the Theological Olympics.

I don’t disagree with 10-year-old Erin. This business about turning the other cheek, giving away the clothes off our back, and walking the extra mile sound like the worst advice ever, and if that wasn’t enough, then comes the part in the middle where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, and the part at the end where Jesus encourages us to become perfect, both of which sound reckless and stupid. Who can actually love their enemies? No one does that. And who can be perfect? No one stands a chance. Besides, if we did any of these things, wouldn’t we be doormats? Is this what Jesus is getting at? Are we supposed to be doormats for Jesus? We live in a cruel world. Is Jesus saying that we’re supposed to stand there and take it?

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A thousand or so years before the time of Jesus, the law on the books was referred to as exact retribution. This was the Old Testament law that clearly stated that what was perpetrated on others would be the punishment right back at the perpetrator. You poke somebody’s eye out? Your eye is coming out, too! Tooth for a tooth. Life for a life. Exact retribution. A few hundred years later, the Israelites did away with the exact part of retribution, and established a system of penalties and payments for damages inflicted upon others. Here, in this part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks against both methods or retribution. Forego retribution altogether, Jesus declares. Renounce your right to retaliate. Do not ask that revenge be exacted upon your opponent. Don’t fight fire with fire. Entire civilizations are burned to the ground that way. Instead, fight fire with water.

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The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, Alabama was the turning point of the black Civil Rights Movement. On March 7th, 1965, a day now referred to a Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked an estimated 500-600 unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over into Dallas County.

Televised images of the brutal attack on unarmed citizens presented American and international audiences with what was, for most of them, the first images of such brutal violence. The TV audience that day was in the millions, each one of them safe in the sanctuary of their own living rooms. They saw the protestors throw no punches—not even for their own protection. Gunfire was not returned for gunfire. Brutality was not inflicted by the Civil Rights marchers, but inflicted on them. And an entire world sat staring at those images, horrified. It seemed like the heart of an entire nation was changed that day. Eight days later, on the evening of March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress to introduce his Civil Rights bill, and ask that it be passed into law. The violence, as we know, did not end that day. But due to the marchers’ commitment to non-violent action, an entire nation woke up to injustice.

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Some say that non-violent action, the kind that Jesus speaks of in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is some sort of strategy. Some kind of peaceful weapon wielded against an opponent. It is not. It isn’t the point of non-violent action to humiliate, or degrade a violent adversary. Love is not a weapon. It does not have ulterior motives. Refusing to hit a person who has hit you may show heroic restraint, but that heroic restraint isn’t a method. Love is not a strategy; it’s straightforward, it’s a way of life, a choice we’re asked to make over and over again. We cannot and do not hurt the ones we love, it’s impossible.

So, when Jesus asks us to love those who oppose us, He’s not talking about implementing a strategy, or practicing a non-violent defiance. He’s actually telling us to act and react with love. And love does no harm, even to an enemy. Love is a power far greater than any other. And love’s commitment to compassion speaks far louder than any form of retaliation. Responding with love is a wordless way of saying to our opponents,

I do not fear you, therefore I refuse to engage you in your violence.

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Fear is the real opposite of love, by the way. So often we think love’s opposite is hate. It is not. We will not understand what Jesus means by love if we think of it as the opposite of hate. Pastor William Sloan Coffin, ordained as a Presbyterian minister but serving the United Church of Christ, had this to say:

Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life. Love alone can hold onto and recreate life…Love, and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so. The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to love one another.

And then he quotes the first letter of John chapter 4, verse 18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

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Pastor Kerry Bart down the way at First United Methodist Church had a sign last week that read:

Love your enemies. It will confuse them.

Exactly. Love diffuses our enemies. It sends our opponents away stewing in their own frustration. Spinning in their own webs of irritation and annoyance. But in all that stewing and spinning, we hope our love might wake them up to a better way. There’s nothing more defiant than a commitment to the way of love. But, at the same time, we don’t love in order to confuse, frustrate, irritate, or annoy.

The love that Jesus is talking about isn’t the passive aggressive sort where we put a smile on our face that’s only there to hide a belligerent and stubborn underside. This isn’t an “I-told-you-so” sort of showy love. The love that Jesus is talking about is authentic, straightforward, and complete. It has no ulterior motives. We love for the sake of love itself. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s the only kind of love there is. And this love is not easy. It’s never a feeling. It’s not passive. It never comes easy. It’s not a natural notion. This kind of love is of the unnatural sort. It takes effort and discipline, practice and determination, every bit of our energy and every bit of our courage. And finally, this sort of love is culture-defying. It makes no sense to the world. You will not find it out and about. It’s not a part of our everyday cultural vernacular. That’s because our culture doesn’t understand why anyone would dedicate them self to a way of being and doing that ultimately costs or compromises, inconveniences, or willingly puts their self in 2nd place.

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When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, His disciple Judas Iscariot was leading a band of Roman soldiers to arrest Him. That night, Jesus was insulted in every single way imaginable. Betrayed by His own, beaten, mocked, stripped, and later hung out to dry. But all the way, He loved. There was not one moment when Jesus lost His self-control. He held His peace even though He was treated so violently. Throughout, He maintained His dignity, displaying at every turn a total refusal to retaliate, to trade blow for blow, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult.

Friends, love, this Divine love that Jesus challenges us to undertake, it has a surprising dignity to it. It defies human nature. It’s a love we have to learn. It does not come naturally. This sort of love takes all of our moral strength.

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This teaching on retaliation-defying love is the peak of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is challenging that part of our human nature that would rather be rightunyielding, proud and headstrong and out of relationship than amicable, merciful, humble, and soft-hearted and in relationship.

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So, the question for you and I, friends, is this: when others look at us—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, all—what do they see? Do they see a person scared to death, willing to trade blow for blow, insult for insult, fire for fire; or do they see Jesus inside, a disciple who at all costs and in all circumstances is willing to forego their pride and place to show forth the costly love of Jesus? Will we have the courage to love?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Passion Story

This Palm Sunday, instead of a sermon, we read the Passion story according to Mark (14:1-15:47).

It takes about 18 minutes to read, and it’s captivating in itself. I urge you this week to take the time to read it on your own.

The reading of scripture is the centerpiece of the church’s worship. It’s why we gather in the first place–to hear God’s Word spoken to us through readings and speak God’s Word in our liturgy, our prayers, and our songs.

Often times, though, I think we suffer from what Leonard Sweet calls versitus. Versitus is the painful lack of story or narrative within our churches. It’s an ailment as old as the church itself.

I think we get caught up in all the things around the reading of scripture in worship–the prayers, the songs, the liturgy–that we really have forgotten why we gather together in the first place. We may have even forgot who we are: we are a people of a story.

God’s story and ours transcends the words printed in our bibles, but they start there too. So reading our story, straight from scripture in larger pieces combats our versitus with a healthy dose of storytelling, and it reminds us that God’s story and ours is a long and adventurous one–one to lose ourselves in so that we might gain ourselves along the way.